Worker protests came again to fast-food restaurants in the Tampa area as part of a nation-wide rollout of strikes and planned walkouts in 100 U.S. cities.
This time, labor groups and workers took to the streets in front of a Dunkin’ Donuts on East Busch Boulevard early Thursday morning and a KFC and McDonalds location later in the day. More than 40 protesters attended each event, chanting and waving signs that read “Poverty Wages No More” and “$15 and a Union.”
“I’m proud of the product, and the job I do,” said Lashonna Delgardo who works at a Temple Terrace Dunkin’ Donuts as a shift supervisor, and was one of about 40 protesters and union organizers at a KFC march Thursday. Though she manages other workers, she is kept under 40 hours a week and makes less than $8.30 an hour. “I just want to make a wage I can live on. We’re the ones who meet the customers.”
Minimum wage now stands at $7.79 per hour in Florida, and pay at such levels has become a frequent touch point in the national dialogue, with workers saying that’s not enough to support families that too often have been pushed into what had been jobs originally suited for teen workers. Business owners counter that significant pay raises would force them to either dramatically raise prices or cut worker ranks.
This week, President Obama weighed into the issue, and highlighted how low wages hinder the overall economy, just as more cities are voting to raise their minimum wages.
Beyond the immediate protests, the war over wages has moved into a realm that’s familiar to highly contentious political fights, with the warring sides starting to fight over each other’s credibility rather than the actual issue at hand.
On one side, businesses like Walmart now send almost daily alerts disparaging groups that organize worker protests. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has followed suit, building a specialized Worker Center Watch organization and website “dedicated to exposing Big Labor’s abuse of the worker,” complete with unflattering photos of protesters.
In advance of Thursday’s protests, The National Council of Chain Restaurants issued a statement, saying in part that “choreographed street theater directed by Big Labor cannot replace thoughtful enactment of sound economic policies which will actually spur capital investment and create jobs.”
On the other side, worker groups have called out some seemingly independent public relations groups as covertly backed by large corporations. Meanwhile, other left-leaning groups have highlighted how companies like McDonald’s encourage workers to go on public assistance to make ends meet and how Walmart employees have launched food banks for each other during the holidays.
This week, the Seattle-based Alliance for a Just Society noted that Florida has been leading the country with new job openings, but that the majority of those jobs pay too little for a family to have a living wage, or at least $15 per hour.
Thursday, worker protests spread to the largest of markets. In New York City, about 100 protesters carrying signs, blowing whistles and beating drums marched into a McDonald’s about 6:30 a.m.; one startled customer grabbed his food and fled as they flooded the restaurant, while another didn’t look up from eating and reading amid chants of “We can’t survive on $7.25!”
Tyeisha Batts, a 27-year-old employee at a Burger King was among those taking part in the demonstrations planned throughout the day in New York City. She said she has been working at the location for about seven months and earns $7.25 an hour.
“My boss took me off the schedule because she knows I’m participating,” Batts said. She said she hasn’t been retaliated against but that the manager warned that employees who didn’t arrive at work on time Thursday would be turned away for their shifts.
In Detroit, about 50 demonstrators turned out for a pre-dawn rally in front of a McDonald’s. A handful of employees walked off the job, but the restaurant stayed open as a manager and other employees worked the front counter and drive-thru window.
“I need a better wage for myself, because, right now, I’m relying on aid, and $7.40 is not able to help me maintain taking care of my son. I’m a single parent,” said Julius Waters, a 29-year-old McDonald’s maintenance worker who was among the protesters. In Atlanta, about 40 demonstrators rallied at a Burger King; another demonstration was planned later in the day.
Whether or not a minimum $15 per hour wage is a prudent goal nationally, it would have an immediate impact on prices to eat at Burger King, said Daniel Fitzpatrick, chairman and chief executive of Quality Dining Inc., which a year ago bought just over 50 Burger King locations in the Tampa Bay region.
“If we’re going to double the minimum wage, imagine the cost of a $3.75 Whopper doubling as well,” he said. “I’m not sure you’d feel like that was as good a value.” More broadly, Fitzpatrick said his company already faces steep rises in prices for energy, food and other costs that continue to put pressure on profit margins, which he said may not be as thin as the grocery industry, but “they’re quite thin.”
Touching on the issue of minimum-wage as a starting point in life, Fitzpatrick noted that he started working at age 14 in a spaghetti restaurant in Toledo after his father took very ill. His mother and brothers started working immediately, and they ended up rising through the ranks and eventually bought two dilapidated Burger Kings, which then grew to six locations, and then more, and now has become a family business with thousands of employees across the country.
Fitzpatrick said he’s not naive enough to think everyone will go through that kind of Horatio Alger story, but since he bought the Burger King operations in Tampa, he’s expanded the ranks of manager-level workers from about 100 to more than 400, and the overall company is now fully compliant with the Affordable Care Act. “I personally know of hundreds of people who have worked for me at entry level who are now lawyers, doctors, welders and teachers ... I’m just not sure that fast-food restaurants should be the fulcrum for fixing all these issues with education, health and the overall economy.”
Information from The Associated Press and TBO.com producer Rick Mayer was used in this report.